Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’


As I began the fifth chapter of my third book, I realized I had no idea where my story was going. That is a strange thing to admit, but it’s true. Obviously, I had a rough idea, but that’s all it was… a rough idea, and I’ve learned that, for me, a rough idea is not enough to keep me going. It seems strange that a person would sit down to write a novel with only a vague impression of the outcome, but that’s exactly what I did. Again.

I’ve been through this before, and you’d think I would have learned my lesson. I was taught that as your story is being written, you need to constantly be moving things in the direction of the end. I had my setting down, I knew the characters, I knew the basic premise… but somehow, I had no idea where I was trying to go. This explains why it has taken me so long to get this project going.

One of the most valuable things I learned from my mentor very early on was that I need to know my ending first. This may not be true for every writer, but for me, it’s absolutely essential. Without a known ending, I am like a blind rat in a maze, bumping into things and following dead ends. (It’s just that I get so excited to write new stories and utilize the knowledge I’ve acquired that I forget many of the fundamentals!)

I’ve spent many many hours these past few weeks trying to iron out the wrinkles in this storyline and trying to decide what it is that I am ultimately trying to say, and finally, this morning, I figured it out. My mentor told me to develop my theme. This, all of a sudden, sounded like a foreign term to me, which reminded me just how much of the basics I had forgotten. According to Wikipedia a theme is: “a broad idea, message, or moral of a story. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas and are almost always implied rather than stated explicitly.” Fair enough.

I turned the story over in my head and finally decided that what I’m really trying to say in this current novel is that sometimes, in order to appreciate the people around you, you have to see the profound greatness they’re capable of~ and that good and evil exist all around us at all times, but within all of us is the voice of reason, and the power to do to great things. Sounds good, right? Not really. It’s too complicated and unclear.

So we went a layer deeper. And another layer deeper after that. Finally, I concluded that my theme is this: A human being with faith has as much power as any of God’s angels. Knowing my theme then paved the way for the rest of the story. For the first time since I began writing this book, I have an absolute idea of what I want to say, and how I need to get there. There are still some issues that need a bit more thought, but I finally believe I can sit down and write this book without feeling overwhelmed by the fact that I am completely lost.

If I can do this right, I believe this story could easily be my best one yet. If I do it wrong, however, I think it could easily come off as being amateur, juvenile and an embarrassment to my capabilities. Right now, I can see it going either way. The beauty of writing though, is that you can always re-write, and having a clear vision of where you’re going with a story is the best place to start… even though it isn’t where I started. Again.

On that note, if I had any advice, it would be this: First develop your theme. Know exactly what you want to say. Define it as clearly as possible and then work backwards. Figure out the end… and begin at the beginning, making sure that every move you make along the way leads to that end. This is the most priceless piece of knowledge I was given, and despite my attempts to bypass it, I find myself coming back to it. Again.

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Any fiction writer knows that characters are crafty and unpredictable little critters who seem to possess minds of their own. While this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the storytelling process, it can also be one of the most frustrating. At times, you want a character to do (or not do) one thing or another, and you spend substantial amounts of time and energy trying to force the desired activity only to learn over and over again that you really aren’t in control at all.

There are endless ways our characters surprise us. There is the good guy who suddenly wants to do something heinous, there’s the bad guy who wants nothing more than to redeem himself, and there are the small bit-players who demand far more of the spotlight than they need. Finally, there are those characters who just mysteriously appear, and of course, their even more mysterious counterparts, the ones who just kind of vanish into thin air. It’s those fictional vanishing acts that intrigue me most of all.

As far as I can see, disappearing acts in the world of the written word date as far back as The Holy Bible when, after stripping Samson of his lustrous locks and Almighty Power, his duplicitous love interest Delilah, slips into the netherworld, never to be heard from again. We don’t know what happened to Delilah, and for the most part, we don’t care; but it does make me stop and wonder what becomes of our own characters who never fulfilled their author-imposed missions.

Of my own characters, the one I’m most curious about is a fellow named Chester. Before a word of The White Room had actually been written, Chester was at the front of the line, lobbying for my attention with sweet little promises of all the various ways he would contribute to the story. It wasn’t until almost two years later, when I wrote those two beautiful, final words, The End, that I realized poor Chester was never even mentioned.

I’ve come to think of writing a novel as something similar to making a movie, and one of the most important parts of books and movies are, of course, the characters who drive the story. So it’s safe to assume that sometimes, certain players just don’t make the final cut. Maybe the story evolves and just kind of leaves them in the dust, or maybe the introduction and evolution of new characters renders the old ones unnecessary. In Chester’s case, I think it’s a matter of the latter, but I don’t think that means he won’t reappear at a later time.

I imagine fictional characters as actors of sorts who are ever-vying for the next best part to play. Maybe this analogy is a bit outlandish, but it’s what makes sense to me so I’m going to go with it. I just can’t accept that the characters we create are accidental mirages of meaninglessness who can fade in and out of existence as quickly as picking up or setting down a pen. We bond with these “people”; we foster them and invest in them. They are, I believe, extensions of ourselves that we’ve found a way to give expression to, and I don’t believe that part of ourselves will go ignored forever.

I still have a lot to learn about this whole fiction-writing thing, but I suspect that in time, I will clearly understand these little mysteries enough that I’ll no longer find myself worrying that people who do not exist didn’t get their chance to shine in a world that isn’t real. Until then, I will just have to comfort myself with the hope that these little disappearing acts will re-emerge when the time (and the story) is right.

This is a strange journey, indeed…


       

You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.

 

Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.

 

Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?

 

In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.

 

Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.

 

Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  

 

In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.

 


     

     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.


A general estimation of the time it takes me to complete a novel, complete with the revision process, is roughly six months. That’s two novels a year~ a goal I’ve set for myself and am adamant about adhering to. The trouble is, sometimes things get off track and projects overlap.

My objective was to begin my third book at the beginning of July. An Evil Heart, the project I am currently working on with Kim Williams-Justesen was scheduled to be finished by June fifteenth. It’s now July sixth and, although An Evil Heart is in its final two chapters, I didn’t want to wait until it was finished to begin the next book.

A lot of authors have more than one project going on at a time. For some this is easy, and for others, it’s not even an option. I am somewhere in the middle on this subject. I’m finding that the vast contrast of the voice and style of the two undertakings are making it difficult to shift from one story without getting its residual influence all over the other. Given the broad distinctions between the two stories, this makes for some very confusing and poorly formed story development.

For the first time, I am beginning to understand some things that I’ve heard other writers talk about. For example, until now, it was never a challenge for me to sit down and write something and maintain a consistent voice. Now I am comprehending the importance of “getting into character”.

When you’re writing just one story, it’s much easier to tap into the right voice. With two projects going, especially when the voices of each of the stories are so different from each other, you have to find methods of getting into the right frame of mind for each interchanging writing session.

For the story I am writing from the serial killer’s point of view, for example, I find that I must take very different mental approaches to the things around me in the hours before I sit down to write than I do in the hours that precede the writing of my daydreaming, small-town, trailer park, lawnmower boy and his story.

With practice, I’m hoping to become better at shifting my focus so that my goal of two novels a year can be attained whether or not everything runs perfectly on schedule, but as of right now, it is proving to be a difficult endeavor that I will be glad to be done with.


     Although all stories are vastly different from each other, there is a basic formula to all storytelling that must take place. In essence, even though subject matter, characterization, setting and plot can vary immensely from story to story, every story has the same skeletal layout.

     There are four parts to every story. The first is the introduction. In this, you establish the norm; you decide what normal life is like for the characters in your story and give the reader a feel for what every day life is like in the world you’ve created. In the second segment of storytelling comes the introduction of the conflict. Here, the writer introduces the problems or problem the character is about to be faced with. The third part of the story is the climax. This is where your characters’ challenges reach their peak and the ultimate confrontation takes place. The climax is the beginning of the end… and the end of course, is the resolution… where the challenges are resolved.

     Right now, I am in mid-climax! The joint effort book I am writing with Kim Williams-Justesen has finally reached its peak. You’d think that this would be my favorite part of storytelling, but the truth is, it’s not. The climax always stresses me out and I much rather prefer the introduction because there, you can take your time and lie back to let the characters reveal themselves and their situations at their leisure.  In the climax, there isn’t room for wasted words. The climax, for me, is the most tedious part of the story because it’s so limited in its spectrum of possibility. After all, you can’t write two hundred and fifty pages leading up to a certain point and suddenly take a left turn. The climax is why readers have stuck with you, and it’s at the story’s peak that they want action, intensity and emotional potency; and after all the time they’ve invested in your story, you owe them that satisfaction.

Another reason why writing the climax is difficult for me is because it feels like goodbye. For some reason, the resolution doesn’t make me sad… the climax does. You’ve spent hours and hours agonizing over these characters. You’ve spent days and days getting to know them and understanding them on the most intimate levels. You’ve spent months trying to tell their story in a way that not only satisfies you, but also does your characters’ justice, and will hopefully keep the readers’ interest. And now… everything you’ve been building up to is reaching its peak and coming to a quick close.

In the project I am working on now, my co-author and I are writing alternating chapters and the resolution isn’t mine to tell. The character I am writing disappears and it is Kim’s character who gets the resolution. I am on my last chapter. In twelve to fifteen pages, my character Sterling Bronson, who has been in the making for over eight months, will be no more.  I am moving out-of-state in two and a half weeks, so there won’t even be any chance of prolonging the goodbye… savoring it. Kim and I have sixteen days to wrap this baby up and say goodbye to it, and this, for me, is the hardest aspect of writing.

After resolving the story, there are of course revisions. These can take days, weeks or even months, depending on the condition of the first draft. In a way, this is still spending time with the characters and the story, but it isn’t the same as that first time around, when everything was new and you were excited to see what shape it would all take.

The end of the story is sad, there’s no doubt about that, and there is only one way I know to combat that sadness, and that is to start the next one and begin the process all over again.

So needless to say… that’s what I’ll be doing!

Happy climax!


     In the beginning, I think most writing starts out as a hobby.  Some folks are content to stay there, while others become interested in pursuing writing on a more professional level.  While both hobbyists and professionals have their places – and both are perfectly respectable, I’ve found that many writers reside somewhere in the middle.  That middle part is where I think one wants to avoid getting caught.  

     When a writer first submerges him or herself into the world of writing, the hobbyists are the first people he or she will most likely meet.  While many established writers look down on the hobbyists, it isn’t fair to dismiss them entirely.  “Laymen” and hobbyists often offer the best advice, as they represent the general audience and offer insights that editors, agents and publishers sometimes can not. 

     There is one potential danger though.  Many hobbyists are very quick to offer advice, which is fine, so long as a new writer realizes that this is coming from someone who doesn’t write professionally.  Many of these people have never dealt with agents, publishers, editors and the like.  Many of them have not acquired the education to offer sound advice.  Also, the rules of writing and the writing business itself is in a constant state of evolution, so someone who dealt with a publisher or acquired an education ten or even five years ago, isn’t really in the loop anymore.    

    If you treat your own writing like a hobby, so will everyone else.  If writing is something you want to do professionally, then you have to be a professional long before you ever make your first dollar.  For me, I have the best of both worlds.  As a hobby, I write poetry, which I post on Facebook and very much enjoy sharing.  Then there are my books, which I agonized over and am far more possessive with.  I don’t want unprofessional advice on my novels.  Of course, I have my select group of trusted readers (some writers, some not) whose advice I ask for and welcome, but I don’t share this work with just anyone.  

    Don’t get me wrong:  I love my poetry as well, and am quite serious about it.  I have written it my entire life and imagine I always will.  But the truth is, there is very little space in the writing business for poetry, so I have never treated it the same as my stories.  I’m not interested in being a professional poet, but for me, it’s wonderful to have the best of both worlds.  I need to keep writing poetry as a hobby because I tend to get very serious about my other writing, and if I get too intense about it, it just stops being fun. 

     There is an entire sea of people out there who write.  This is wonderful, but it’s important to know what kind of writer you are.   If you want to be a professional, you need to act like one.  You must do your homework and keep up on the ever-changing business of writing.  You must always present yourself as a professional, treat agents and publishers as the professionals they are, and follow each agents’ submission guidelines without deviation.  And above all, know whose footsteps you want to follow and be very careful whose advice you take.

     Write on.